Martin Reed is an online community builder who got in touch with us recently. He's been in the industry for quite a while now and started his latest community, aimed at women and called Female Forum, last year. His blog, Community Spark, is a mine of information and intelligent discussion on the subject.
He kindly agreed to an interview and has some great insights and practical advice for anyone interested in the art of online communities. In particular, I like his closing advice about building relationships online: be honest, professional and generous. If you like this interview and want more, check out our interview with Rich Millington from Feverbee.
Well, my name is Martin Reed, I am 28 years old and have been developing online communities for about nine years. They have become a real passion of mine – I love the unpredictability of online community development and the fact that there is no 'right way' to develop them. Every community is different (or at least it should be) which keeps things interesting!
I love to travel; I am originally from the UK but now live in New York City with my American wife. I have also lived and worked in Australia and Canada. In 2006 I ran the London Marathon and raised around $2,000 for charity – a real buzz.
It was a complete accident! I got my own Internet connection in 1999 and found online chat rooms absolutely fascinating. The fact I could communicate with someone on the other side of the world in realtime floored me. I began to get frustrated however, with all the chat sites that made you register just to gain access so I started up my own website, Just Chat as a place where people could chat without registering. The site is still going strong to this day, although it now has the addition of message boards, a free email penpals section and free ecards.
A community builder is someone who facilitates the development of relationships. It is all too easy to forget that behind every successful online community are real life people. All too often community builders focus on technology and advertising to bring in new members. This is a mistake – your focus should be on developing relationships amongst your existing members. If you build a successful community, your members will do the majority of your external promotion – free of charge.
I don't think there is a universal determinant of what makes a successful online community. Every online community should be unique and have its own goals. Some may want to reach 1,000 members. Others may want to reach 500,000 forum posts. Some may want to develop a community with engaging discussion and mature, friendly members. This raises another important issue when it comes to developing online communities – measuring success with numbers isn't appropriate. You might have 100,000 posts but they might be full of abuse – is that a sign of success? On the other hand you may only have 100 members but they are creating valuable content and representing everything good about your community. Harder to measure, but I would take the second scenario over the first every time.
I would have to include my own community, Female Forum as an example of a successful community. The site only launched in September, yet is has exceeded the goals I had in place for it for the first three months. We have a great bunch of members who have struck up real friendships with people that were once strangers. I can't think of any job better than community building – bringing people together is an amazing feeling.
I am passionate about online communities. Although I recommend people who are thinking about launching an online community to only develop one based on something they are passionate about, for me the subject doesn't matter.
I wanted to give myself a big new challenge and develop a new online community from scratch. When I develop online communities, I want to do something different. There is no point setting up a 'cookie cutter' online community that is no different to those that already exist. It took me a few months to find a niche that I thought would be worth pursuing – namely an online community for women.
It seemed that the existing websites that catered solely for women were overly complex. The community features tended to be hidden away and unintuitive. I thought I could do better. Sure, I am a man – but developing and facilitating relationships is basically the same regardless of your audience.
I have written more about the development of Female Forum on my blog, Community Spark.
It depends. When you start, you can realistically operate a successful community completely by yourself. It's hard work, but it can be done. As your community grows, you will need additional help to prevent chaos and potential anarchy – that's when you bring in your most valuable members who will often be more than happy to help moderate the community and alleviate your workload.
This is something I have been thinking about over the past couple of weeks. We had one man join a couple of months ago as he wanted advice from a female audience. At the time, we let him join and post his question. We are a little further down the line with the development of Female Forum now, so I need to ask my members what they think.
Personally, I don't have a problem with a handful of men joining the community, however I can perfectly understand and would be willing to accept my members telling me they don't want this to happen.
I only want change if my members want it, too.
Getting a brand new online community moving is extremely challenging. You shouldn't launch an online community until you already have members. I know that sounds odd, but I'll explain.
When you are developing your community, you need to already be looking for members. You should have a splash page up at your URL outlining what the community will offer. You should also allow people to register for updates. Over the development period, this should give you a number of potential new members – give them a sneak peek of the site before anyone else. Make them feel special and honoured. Involve them in your plans and make them feel like influencers, and they may just turn into them.
If you have friends that may be interested in the community, bring them in to help get the forum off the ground. If there are only a few posts per day, you need to step in and create content yourself. If you don't create content, you wont create members, and you won't develop relationships. People won't join a community without content. They won't stick around if there isn't fresh content, either. Work hard, create content, make the members you have feel valued and you'll get there.
'In Jokes' shouldn't be discouraged. They bring your community together. At the same time, you want your community to be open and inviting to new members. You can strike a balance – you just need to lead by example. Every now and then, be cheeky. One of my members on Female Forum loves reading The Daily Mail (a British tabloid newspaper) and is always mentioning specific stories. I started a poll asking other members if we should ban her from ever reading the newspaper again. Most came out in support of her – they saw the humour. Sure, it was silly but members loved it. Now, whenever this member mentions a story from that newspaper, it puts a cheeky grin on the faces of a number of members as they picture me cringing in the background after my motion was 'defeated'.
At the same time, I also welcome new members publicly. This prompts other members to do the same. I have even designated some of the community's strongest members as 'Welcome Reps' who have the specific job of making new members feel welcome.
Spam will always be a problem. I think I was dealing with spam on Female Forum pretty much from day one. You need to be vigilant, and you need to deal with it. If you leave spam on your community, you are sending the wrong message to your members and new visitors alike. You need to incorporate as many automated spam protection features as possible, but at the same time keep the community as accessible as possible. It's a challenge.
You'll also come across members that aren't particularly pleasant. Your online community needs to have rules/guidelines so your members know how they are expected to behave. You can't expect your members to refrain from certain behaviour if they don't know it isn't allowed. Once you have rules and guidelines, you need to enforce them in a consistent and professional manner. This is a huge area, and I would recommend people pick up Patrick O'Keefe's book 'Managing Online Forums' for more advice.
It depends. If the blog, forum, twitter account etc are based on the same niche and share the same members, then it doesn't make any sense to keep them separate. This is something I grappled with on Just Chat – we have separate sections to the site, namely chat rooms, forums and an email penpals section. You should leverage your existing traffic and brand loyalty as much as you can – keep everything together, if possible. Why create more work for yourself by building separate communities that consist largely of the same members or target audience?
SEO isn't really my area of expertise, so I don't like to offer advice on this area – instead, I prefer to refer people to companies like Distilled! Networking and relationship building is important though, regardless of whether you are developing an online community or a static website. I have always considered the most valuable element of link exchanges to be the relationship you develop with others who work in your niche or area of expertise. You can never know too many people. Your competitors are one of your greatest assets – you can learn from them and be motivated by them.
When networking or building relationships, you should be honest. You should be professional, and you should be generous – name drop, offer your time and you'll find most people will reciprocate.
Thanks again Martin- some great answers in there.